Humility is Radical Self-Awareness

At Arbinger, we agree with the many leadership experts who cite humility as a key characteristic of successful leaders. But what does humility mean? How can we get there?

By the Arbinger Institute | November 01, 2017

At Arbinger, we agree with the many leadership experts who cite humility as a key characteristic of successful leaders.

We wondered: How do those successful leaders become humble? Is it an innate characteristic? Can it be developed? What is true humility, anyway?

Let’s discuss.

What Humility is Not

It’s easy to picture one of humility’s opposites: arrogance. When we see ourselves as better than others, we are certainly not exercising humility.

There’s another opposite, too, though—one that may not be as obvious. We are not being humble when we put ourselves down—when we see ourselves as “less than” others.

How could this be? Isn’t such self-abasement exactly what humility means?

No, we say. The reason is that when we’re so down on ourselves—when we genuinely see ourselves as mattering less than other people—we are just as self-focused as when we’re arrogant. From this “less-than” mindset, we cannot be as aware of or helpful to others as true humility warrants. For example, someone who sees themselves as “less than” might fear their imperfections will be found out and judged, so they focus on maintaining their own image in the eyes of others. This focus might blind them to the times their colleagues need help or the ways they’re creating problems for others.

How We Become Un-Humble

As people, we generally have a sense of what others might need—what might be helpful to them; what the right thing to do might be in a given situation. When we choose to betray that fundamental sense, we generate a need in ourselves to justify that choice. We have to somehow make it seem right not to do what we felt we should do.

So we start seeing ourselves (and others) differently. For example:

  • “I’m the only competent one on this team!” (Others need me to tell them what to do!)
  • “I’m just the newbie; I’m not responsible for this!” (Others should tell me what to do!)
  • “I’m the one who gets things done around here.” (Others are lazy and deserve my derision.)
  • “I’m not good enough for this role.” (It’s okay if I ask others to take on my work.)
  • And so on.

And we use these self-images to justify our choices. For example, perhaps the “competent” person draws on their self-image to justify a choice to dictate tasks to team members without soliciting input or listening to suggestions.

Note that these “choices” are generally not explicit. They take place without a logical thought process. They simply become the way things are and, it seems to us, have always been. We experience them as truth in our thoughts and emotions.

True Humility Means Seeing Clearly

To be truly humble, we need to strip away these justifications. Humility is the ability to see the truth of oneself—strengths and weaknesses, ups and downs, contributions and needs—without self-justification.

True humility, in other words, is radical self-awareness.

This is really hard! As one Arbinger member recently put it, “How many of us look at ourselves closely and are in love with what we see? It is a lot to ask of someone to strip away their self-justifying images.”

But here’s the even harder part: How can we strip away these images? If we experience our self-justifications as truth, if we believe them with our thoughts and feelings, how can we even see them to let them go? How can we achieve radical self-awareness if we’re stuck in our own self-justifying belief cycles?

To See Ourselves Clearly, See Others as People

The way out of our self-justifying belief cycles is through others: through seeing them as people who matter exactly as much as we ourselves do. Humans exist in relation with others. We cannot be humble (or arrogant, or self-deprecating) in a vacuum. As we see others more clearly, we see ourselves more clearly. Humility grows in us as we respond to the humanity of others.

Bringing this idea to practical application, one way we can start seeing others as people is by getting really curious about them. What’s going on for them? What are their headaches, goals, and needs?

So the challenge for this blog is to go out and get curious. Find someone—at work, at home, a friend—and ask them about themselves. Then really listen to their answers. What changes do you notice in your relationship with them? What changes do you notice in how you see yourself?

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